Nuts & Bolts: Complexities of caucus

It’s another Saturday, so for those who tune in, welcome to a diary discussing the Nuts & Bolts of a Democratic campaign. If you’ve missed out, you can catch up anytime: Just visit our group or follow Nuts & Bolts Guide. Every week I tackle issues I’ve been asked about and, with the help of a lot of great minds, we put together a series aimed at helping small campaigns.

This year we are going behind the scenes of the selection process for delegates to the national convention. Primaries are pretty straightforward. State governments run and pay for an organized primary, people vote, the state government tabulates the vote, and winners are declared. This allows for state infrastructure to be used to help make sure the process is well run and the outcomes can be quantified into easy numbers all the way down to precincts and state house districts.

The existence of caucus is more often because state governments refuse to pay for the process of choosing a presidential candidate. In these states, the state party—Republican and Democratic—have to pay the cost of providing a means to select their delegation. That can be pretty complex. How complex? This week, we’re looking at the complexities of the caucus.

It all starts in where, and that isn’t easy

When you go to vote in a November election, you will find that your state government has provided you spaces you can go within your community. They lease spaces inside of civic centers, use election offices, and maps are made available. The local or county government has a budget for voting machines and poll workers and it is backed by county and state resources.

States that run a caucus, where a state party foots the bill, however, have none of this infrastructure. The state party is now tasked with finding the locations that can host a caucus site, the means by which to contact a voter, develop a method to count votes, and more. For a state party organization in a caucus state, this headache can be a time-consuming, costly endeavor. 

In order to help make the process better for 2020, states that do not have state government support to provide a primary and must run a caucus are looking at better ways to hold those events. This can include mail-in ballots, drop and go voting (Firehouse Primary/Caucus), and more. Still, all of these measures have a cost, and it isn’t easy at all. 

Primary or caucus, the election of delegates themselves is often in a caucus process

To help make sure that everyone is familiar with Iowa’s means of selecting delegates and voting for who attends the national convention, the party issues summaries. These generally look like this:

While this summary is from 2016, the same items will be issued for 2020, providing guidance to anyone who is an outside observer as to how the process will go.

Primaries have a caucus? Wait, what?

Sure, Iowa has a caucus. But so does California. Wait, what? That’s right. While the primary process is about determining how many delegates a candidate receives in a state, the process of selecting who those delegates are is almost always handled through a caucus process. 

State of California

So, in selecting a candidate, primary states use a primary and in selecting the individual who goes to the convention, it is a series of district-level selection processes that is handled through a caucus. This can be confusing to people trying to follow the election process because the term “caucus” has so many different meanings within a party. There can be a caucus as a group (as an example: the LGBT Caucus, the Latinx Caucus), caucus as an election process (Iowa), and caucus as an in-party election. The first rule of the caucus is: if you aren’t sure of what is meant, ASK. The answer may not be what you expect, and asking is NEVER a problem.

Next week: Here. We. Go. The Iowa Caucus.

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